Debra Darvickenhance your now in word and image
Tomorrow is the Jack Benny anniversary of our son’s bris. How clearly each moment remains: the dread of anticipation, the joy at having family celebrating with us, exhaustion and uncertainty about this whole endeavor called motherhood. I was responsible for this new life. Eeegad! It was beyond me to imagine how that little being would grow into the amazing man, father, son, husband, grandson and friend he continues to become. Instead of writing any more, I shall leave you with the my recollection of that day. It is the opening story in my book, This Jewish Life, Stories of Discovery, Connection and Joy.
And on the Eighth Day You Shall …
“And who’s going to be there to celebrate if we have a boy?” I was eight months pregnant and about to be transferred from New York to the wilds of the Midwest. I had just realized that if our first child was a boy, we would have only the barest handful of family at his bris. Our immediate family would make the spur-of-the-moment trip no matter when the eighth day fell, but my aunts, uncles and cousins wouldn’t travel from Manhattan to Michigan for a bris—nor would my husband’s 30 or so relatives who had watched my pregnancy with loving and not-too-overbearing interest. All of our friends would be left behind. How many caring friendships could be cultivated in 21 days—the time between our arrival in Michigan and my due date? I began hoping for a girl, even though I’d been getting “boy” vibes ever since the little blue circle had appeared in the glass tube seven months before.
But when the plane touched down in Detroit, a bris was the last thing on my mind. We had three weeks to settle in, unpack, scope out the grocery and drug stores, interview pediatricians and learn the shortest route to the hospital.
As it turned out, I did have one acquaintance: a woman I’d known briefly from B’nai B’rith Girls during my high school years in Atlanta, who now lived 10 minutes away. Our first weekend in Michigan, she and her husband threw us a party to introduce us to their circle of friends. Her friends were in various stages of diaperhood and warmly invited me to join their playgroups when I felt ready. There were few Jews in our neighborhood, but in a procedure reminiscent of the old Farmer in the Dell game, one introduced us to another until we had met them all. The couple from whom we’d bought our house kept in touch, even offering to take me to the hospital if my husband couldn’t make it home from work in time.
One morning I called a baby nurse recommended to me by our future pediatrician. “Lord, you called way too late,” she said when I asked if she could come 12 days hence. “But I will give you this: If you have a boy, don’t let anyone near him but Cantor Greenbaum. I’ve taken care of plenty of boys in my time, and Cantor Greenbaum does it better than anyone else.” Her well-meaning advice only reminded me that we knew barely enough people to make a minyan. I called the cantor and then, feeling lonelier than ever, hoped against hope I wouldn’t need his services.
I went into labor on my due date. Eight days later, Cantor Greenbaum showed up at the appointed hour. My friend’s friends and the neighbors we had met during the past few weeks arrived with cookies and cakes, bunting blankets and knitted sweaters. My grandfather was in classic form: Every few minutes, I heard the punch line to a Yiddish joke, followed by ripples of laughter. My stepmother had set up a wonderful brunch for us all to enjoy. Maybe living in Michigan wouldn’t be so bad, after all.
And then, all of a sudden, it was time. My grandfather held his great-grandson in our new maple rocker while the mohel chanted blessings over my son. Well into his 70s and feeling frail, my grandfather had been reluctant to participate so directly in the ceremony. I had insisted, as there was no greater honor I could give him than to make him sandak, the overseer, as our son was entered into God’s covenant with Abraham. I knew his strength wouldn’t falter.
I looked around the tiny room that was our son’s nursery and was overcome at the tableau before me: People who barely knew us had skipped work to be with us, to welcome our child into the Jewish community with fanfare and affection. The woman who’d sold us our house held my hand as the mohel made his dreaded cut. When my son wailed, my knees buckled. “Did you ever think you could love something so much?” she whispered to me, squeezing my hand. She had seen straight into my heart. Then, with shouts of “mazel tov!” drowning out our son’s cries, it was over. God’s pledge of loyalty to Abraham’s offspring now included our son.
Thinking back on that day, I am reminded of the passage in Exodus when the Children of Israel proclaim to God, “We will do and we will listen.” In the desert, they promised action and had faith that understanding would follow. In my own Michigan desert, the day of my son’s bris taught me the power of Jewish ceremony. It taught me the value of following ritual for no other reason than “just because.” It taught me that our tradition cherishes community, and that by embracing the former, we are richly rewarded with the latter.
© Debra B. Darvick
I hadn’t attended a Shabbaton (also called a kallah) since I was in high school. A Shabbaton is a weekend-long celebration designed around the Jewish Sabbath, beginning Friday evening at sunset and concluding 25 hours later on Saturday evening. A Shabbaton is an opportunity to steep in Jewish learning, prayer, and song, have great discussions with a wide variety of people, all with eating lots of wonderful food while socializing.
When I learned that Hadar was having its first Shabbaton since the pandemic, I wanted to go. I’d spent the first two-and-a-half years of the pandemic Zooming with a wonderful group of women as our teacher led us through Jewish study and prayer, daily meditations and as we grew to know one another, quite deep sharing. Some of these women were also going; we were eager to meet one another face-to-face for the first time.
The organized pandemonium at the hotel Friday afternoon was much as I remembeered it from high school. This time, however, I was not lugging a sleeping bag and a pillow. Frazzled yet cheerful staff directed us to the check-in, distributed totes filled with info, a syllabus, and a cool set of reusable silverware and handed us our room keys. When I reached my room, there was a text from a friend back home.
“Are you in Connecticut?”
“Yes. Are you here at the kallah?”
“No, but D. [her daughter] is. She thought she saw you.”
And that is the essence of Jewish community — it’s not six degrees of separation but one. Sometimes two. D. and her wife were there with their three daughters. I hadn’t seen them since their wedding years before. I trusted eventually we’d bump into each other even though I learned there were nearly 600 people attending. Shelving that number along with any anxiety over getting Covid, I put on my mask and headed down to services and then dinner.
One of Hadar’s founding principles is a commitment to what I like to call diversity united. This, in part, from Hadar’s About page: Hadar welcomes people from all walks of Jewish life – teens to great-grandparents, of all denominational backgrounds, from around the country (and around the world). We have programs for college students, for music-lovers who seek to build spiritual community through singing, and for lay people who simply enjoy Torah study.
It was amazing to see the range of ages throughout the weekend. Young parents attended with their children and their parents. The youngest attendee might have been three months and the oldest a tad north of 90. What better way to model learning and joy in Jewish life than to bring together many generations for a weekend. At the final event, a fabulous concert by Joey Weisenberg, I saw a curve of teens standing with their arms around one another’s shoulders as they swayed to the music. Pretty standard I thought remembering myself at their age. Then I realized that some of the kids had come with their parents who were sitting (and dancing) nearby grooving to the music. What? Going to a Shabbaton with your parents is……cool? Wow.
It was thrilling to engage in deep study at every level of complexity. Some classes studied the texts in Hebrew; the majority were in English. Hevruta (partnered) study assumes the two (or three or four) learners are on equal footing. A nine-year-old’s insights into a text are just as welcome and valid as those of someone four or eight times her age. Seeing new perspectives on familiar texts is as exhilarating as studying a text for the first time.
At services on Saturday morning men and women had equal roles in leading the davening (prayer) and chanting from the Torah scroll. Toward the end of the service a group of youngsters came up to lead a prayer that is sung responsively. The words are complex and the pace is quick. They led us with energy and skill. The youngest was probably four. She didn’t know the words but joined in just the same with her sibling who was holding her.
I felt a deep sense of continuity. The next generation is already taking their place in the chain of Jewish life. A dark thought or two intruded. What a target 600 praying Jews would be to some hateful broken person with an automatic rifle. I gazed at an infant sleeping in her father’s arms and thought of the infants shot and bayoneted by Hitler’s alcolytes. We can’t make those who hate us stop hating. In my opinion that’s not my responsibility. My responsibility is to be a Jew in the fullest way possible and to share that joy when the spirit moves me. My responsibility is to be kind, to be aware of the times I judge reflexively, to help those in need and contribute to my community.
Somewhere along the way I did see my friend’s daughter and her family. She speaks only Hebrew to their daughters. Her spouse speaks to them only in English. All their girls are learning Spanish in daycare. Like any young parents they are juggling eleventy million balls in the air and somehow manage through the craziness. After lunch on Saturday one of my Zoom buddies and I took a long walk. We’d only met once, a year before. It was still novel to see one another in three dimensions. We got to talking as girlfriends do, weaving a relationship one shared story at a time. We are thrilled by the miracle and novelty of having become friends during a worldwide calamity of isolation and pandemic.
When I received a survey some days after the Shabbaton I gave rave reviews and probably a suggestion or two. What I couldn’t yet realize was what would stay with me since then. It might have been fifty years between my last Shabbaton as a teen and the one last November. The girl that I was came along to this one, too. We still have much in common. We love Jewish learning. We love that we are Jews. We still get a kick out of random one degrees of separation. It was cool to reach back and bring her along and know she was delighted that I did.
I thank Chazzan Steve Klaper, one of the founders of Song and Spirit, for the wonderful commentary below. His inspiration drew upon the last verses in Deuteronomy (Dvarim in Hebrew) that were read in synagogue over Simchat Torah a week or so ago. It speaks to me deeply. Especially the next to the last paragraph. What kernel stays with you?
In Ha’azinu Moses prepares to take leave of this world. He wants his final words never to be forgotten, so he sings them…The theme of Moses’ libretto is essentially, Don’t blame God when things go wrong.God is not there to serve us. We are here to serve God. God is not there to relieve us of responsibility. God calls us to responsibility.
This whole drama began with the Adam and Eve legend in the Garden of Eden. They sinned, the man blamed the woman, the woman blamed the serpent, the serpent blamed God for making him a serpent. The great cry of human history is, “it’s not our fault — we’re the victims.” It wasn’t us. It’s the politicians. Or the media. Or the corporations. Or our genes. Or our parents. Or the system. Even the Nazis were convinced it wasn’t them. They were “only obeying orders.” And when all else fails, blame God. And if you don’t believe in God, blame the people who do. We forever seek to escape from responsibility.
Moses is saying, When things go wrong, don’t blame God. The final commandment might as well be: thou shalt not see thyself as a victim. We have power, we have agency, we’re the one life form on this planet capable of shaping its own destiny, in the image of the Divine, free, creative, and therefore responsible. The Greeks had it wrong; we’re not playthings of the gods; our fate is not already sealed before we’re born. The view of modern science, which often insists that we’re merely a collection of chemicals driven by electrical impulses in the brain, is likewise wrong. Our consciousness, our personality, our chi, our life force energy — these are all far larger than what’s in our skulls.
It is not what God does for us that transforms us; it is what we do for God. If you’re not sold on the idea of God the Creator, think of it this way: We are not defined by what happens to us but rather by how we respond to what happens to us. If we change the way we think, then we change the way we feel and the way we act. We become masters of our actions, instead of prisoners of our reactions.
This doesn’t just happen. Yes, it takes work, sometimes years of work. But, as we reach the end of Torah, we’re reminded that fate is never final. There is always hope.
photo courtesy of Debra Darvick
This Hebrew month of Elul is the final stretch before Rosh HaShanah. Jewish mystics gave us the metaphor of the Divine coming down from the heights of the heavens to walk among us, ready to meet up should we reach out. No simple endeavor this. The sound of the shofar, which is heard at each morning service during Elul, exhorts us to WAKE UP! Prepare yourself. Release your grudges. Mend your relationships. Inspect your deeds this year; resolve to do better. Reach deeply within and as far out as you can and reconnect with the Source of All Creation.
The shofar’s call is a shout out to God to remember God’s promise to our ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. On their merit we pray to be written and sealed into the Book of Life for the coming year. It is layered with a lifetime of memories. It is a profound sound, eerie, potent, fillng me with equal parts hope and apprehension. Though my life hangs in the in the balance, the shofar’s sounds ground me. My life may not be in my hands, but my conduct is. My spirtual work can temper whatever might be decreed for me this year.
Here are two examples of the shofar being blown.
The first, from Jerusalem. I hope I succeeded in excising the rude commercial preceding it. The second, from PJ Library, is more explanatory and each sound and then puts it all together. What do the shofar’s sounds evoke in you?
Illustration at left, courtesy of Debra Darvick
The kid in me was thrilled to see a scattering of pennies at the base of a parking meter. The driver obviously had no use for them. But as I moved to retrieve them, I relived a high school scene. I’d seen a penny in the hall and bent down to pick it up. It had been glued to the floor. As I rose, mortified that I’d fallen for the trick, I heard the boys’ laughter and words about Jews always stopping to pick up a penny.
Banishing the memory, I picked up the pennies, all 19 of them, and put them in my pocket. Martin and I went on to have a lovely dinner and when I got home I put the copper Lincolns in our tzedekah box. It is nearly full. Soon I’ll empty it and donate the contents to a shelter or food pantry. I hope those boys grew up and grew wise. You don’t have to be a Jew to know that even small change can make a difference.
Anyone who knows my husband knows that when summer rolls around he is in watermelon heaven. One-to-two-a-week watermelon heaven. I’m asked upon occasion how I choose a good watermelon. For me it’s been about the sound. I “thunk” it and it has to resonate properly. There’s a slight reverberation, a hollowness of sound that comes back to me as if the vibration is coming through the juiciness of the melon. If you thunk it and you get a thud, put that melon back and pick up another.
This demo video is definitely not ready for YouTube, but I hope it will guide you to a watermelon-licious summer.